Online abuse of women: Victim shaming, complicated legal procedures force female internet users to suffer in silence

Editor's Note: Data from the National Crime Records Bureau has indicated a sharp upsurge in the number of cyber-crime cases reported over the years. This, despite the fact that most victims, especially women, never speak out against online abuse. This is the part-II of a multi-part series, where Firstpost attempts to look at how fear of being shamed, long legal ordeal, and trivialising the issue is preventing women victims from speaking out. Read the first part of the online abuse series here.

Indore: It was a regular Wednesday afternoon in April and Shachi Dhondiyal (name changed), a 27-year-old journalist in Delhi, had just sat down for lunch when she found 12 missed calls on her phone from several of her friends. A little alarmed, Shachi called one of them back. “Check your WhatsApp, quickly,” the voice on the other end sounded urgent. Shachi opened the chat window and nearly choked on the morsel of food she had just swallowed.

“I was shocked to see my photos being used to advertise a weight loss product called Nutralyfe Garcinia online. I was angry that my picture had been used without my consent on the internet,” said Shachi.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

“The worst part was that one of the pictures had been morphed to make me look fat and another was kept as it is. It was like one of those before and after advertisements used to show the effects of a product. I have never even heard of this product, forget using it. This is wrong at so many levels, they are misleading customers with such false advertising,” she added.

Shachi said that she received a number of calls from her friends and acquaintances throughout the day informing her about the online advertisement with her photos popping up on various websites.

“I emailed the company and told them my photos had been taken from social media platforms without my permission. The company acknowledged my email and promised to take down the ad. However, it refused to disclose the name of the advertising agency responsible for making the ad. They told me that it was a US-based agency but they can’t disclose its name. They told me that they had taken action against the agency,” Shachi said.

“I was relieved but a week later, the photos re-emerged, this time to advertise another product. I called a friend of mine who is a lawyer and he advised me to send a legal notice to the company and request them to reveal the name of the agency since they were probably using the same set of photos to advertise products for various clients,” she added.

But Shachi didn’t do that. Instead, like many cybercrime victims, she chose to stay quiet and suffer. Her reason: She wasn’t prepared to fight a long-drawn battle in court with a company that had more resources and funds than she did.

Increasing cybercrime rates

While many cases of cyber abuse go unreported, there are those who have come forward. Figures recorded by the National Crime Records Bureau indicate a sharp upsurge in the number of cybercrime cases reported over the years. From 9,622 cases of cybercrime reported in 2014, the number went up to 11,592 in 2015 and skyrocketed to 12,317 in 2016.

Constable Pankaj Kumar, cybercrime cell, Saket, New Delhi,  said, “We receive 30 to 40 cases of cybercrime in a month. These include photos being morphed and fake social media profiles etc. Young girls, primarily those who are in school or college, are most likely to fall prey to cybercrime. Most of them do not want to register a police case and do not like to share what they have gone through with their parents.”

Most cases of cybercrime fall under the purview of Section 66 (bailable) of the Information Technology Act.

Why victims suffer in silence

While a possible legal ordeal is one reason that prevents cyber abuse victims from sharing their trauma, victim shaming is another factor that keeps them from speaking out.

Nimisha Arora (name changed) said, “When my photograph was shared by a stranger on Facebook, my family discouraged me from taking legal action while my husband told me that I shouldn’t make such a fuss about my photograph being shared without consent. Some people actually said I was to blame for not being aware of Facebook privacy policies and not using filter guard on my profile pictures.”

Many cyber abuse victims said complaints about misuse of pictures on social media are not taken seriously, even by their peers, with many trivialising their experience, which only adds to their misery. “The onus here is on the victim to protect her data. It is like saying that if your photos are public, anyone has the right to misuse them,” said Shachi.

Among victims who do choose to take action, many said the wait for justice was a long one. Sana Khan (name changed) said, “A miscreant impersonated me on Facebook and video called my friends. He went to the extent of flashing them. I requested my friends to report his profile, but no action was taken. Another step was to register a complaint with the cyber crime cell, where I was asked to share screenshots of the calls made. I was told that my complaint had been forwarded to Facebook. But I had already complained to Facebook, it did nothing, that’s why I had approached the police. It’s been a month and a half and I am yet to see results.”

Praveen Kumar Tripathi, Joint Commissioner (Crime), Kolkata Police, said police often forwarded cases of abuse on Facebook to the social media site and its team was quick to resolve issues.

“We book perpetrators of cybercrime under IT Act or relevant Indian Penal Code sections. Sometimes, we flag the issue to Facebook, which always responds. Sometimes, it takes time to receive a response but Facebook is bound to reply to an investigating agency,” he said.

The police officer said that the number of cyber crimes reported in Kolkata has shot up to 600 a month after cybercrime police stations have come up, thus encouraging victims to share their ordeal.

The author is a Mhow-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters


Updated Date: Jun 18, 2018 08:48 AM

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